The Orlando Magic are heading into year three of the post-Dwight Howard era. So far, they have a combined record of 43-121 since his departure, but have managed to form a nice young nucleus. With the experience they’ve gained and some additional veteran leadership, the pieces may be in place for the Magic to push closer to the top eight of the Eastern Conference than they’ve been able to these last two years.
Basketball Insiders takes a look at the 2014-2015 Orlando Magic.
Five Guys Think…
All of a sudden, the Southeast Division is pretty nasty, with Washington, Charlotte, Miami and Atlanta all looking like potential playoff teams in an undeniably weak Eastern Conference. Orlando, meanwhile, is farther away from experiencing massive postseason success, but they’ve drafted more than enough promising kids the last few drafts to justify optimism for the future. Victor Oladipo should take a huge step forward this year, while mainstays like Nikola Vucevic and Tobias Harris add plenty to the mix, as well. Newcomers Channing Frye, Evan Fournier, Aaron Gordon and Elfrid Payton make this young group even more interesting, though the Ben Gordon signing remains among the most confusing of the offseason. There are a lot of new players to integrate here, many of whom still have some on-court maturation to experience before the Magic can compete seriously for a playoff spot.
5th Place – Southeast Division
– Joel Brigham
Ever since the Orlando Magic parted ways with All-Star center Dwight Howard in 2012, the franchise has taken a slow and methodical approach toward their rebuilding process. Fans of the franchise shouldn’t expect anything different this season as the club had cap space to be players in free agency this past summer but opted not to make any huge splashes. What the franchise has been able to secure though is a solid collection of young players on cap friendly contracts. It is going to take time to rebuild the Magic back into a title contender, but the team’s brass is sticking to their blueprint – collecting young assets and refusing to give huge deals to aging players in free agency.
5th Place – Southeast Division
– Lang Greene
Rather than continuing to stockpile picks and young players, it seems that Orlando actually wants to compete for a playoff berth this season, as evidenced by their decision to sign veteran free agents like Channing Frye, Ben Gordon, Luke Ridnour and Willie Green. The Magic have an intriguing young core with Victor Oladipo, Nikola Vucevic, Aaron Gordon, Elfrid Payton, Tobias Harris, Maurice Harkless and Kyle O’Quinn among others, and it seems management wants them to take the next step and get a taste of success this season. The Magic should be good defensively in 2014-15, as Payton, Oladipo, Gordon and Harkless are all solid defenders. The question is, will they be able to generate enough offense to beat teams? That’s where like newcomers Frye and Gordon need to step in and score the ball along with Harris, Vucevic and Oladipo, who have shown they can produce on offense when given touches. It’s hard to imagine Orlando finishing ahead of any of their Southeast Division peers in the standings, but they should have a slightly better record this season and see some internal development from their young core. Orlando is heading in the right direction, but they’re still a few years away from making any noise.
5th Place – Southeast Division
– Alex Kennedy
With Channing Frye and Ben Gordon added to what was already a talented young core, the Orlando Magic continue on in their pursuit of greatness in the post-Dwight Howard era. The Miami HEAT’s additions after LeBron James’ departure, Lance Stephenson’s signing with the Charlotte Hornets and the continued progression of John Wall and the Washington Wizards means that the Magic will be battling with the Hawks for fourth place in the NBA’s Southeast Division. Still, that doesn’t mean that the Magic aren’t on the right path. With Arron Afflalo’s departure, minutes will open up for Victor Oladipo and he will have every opportunity to build upon the flashes of brilliance he displayed so admirably last year. Alongside Nikola Vucevic, the Magic certainly have two building blocks for their future and now hope that Elfrid Payton can fulfill the lofty expectations his impressive pre-draft workouts have yielded. With the aforementioned Gordon and Frye, the Magic have added two effective floor spacers who will help balance the floor for a team that ranked in the lower-half of the league in three-point percentage last season. In the distant future, the Magic will certainly emerge as one of the more talented teams in the Eastern Conference and this season, especially with the under-the-radar acquisition of Luke Ridnour, the Magic should improve on last season’s paltry 23-59 record. But for this season, the light at the end of the tunnel is still a ways away.
5th Place – Southeast Division
– Moke Hamilton
This is the season where we should be able to form a much better understanding over whether the people calling the shots in Orlando really know what they’re doing. There have been some positive things that have happened over the course of the last two years, even though there isn’t many wins to show for it. If a major jump toward night in and night out competitiveness isn’t made this season, it’s time to evaluate whether the right head coach and general manager are in place to see this rebuilding project through to where it needs to go. On the court, the spotlight is going to be firmly on Tobias Harris and Nikola Vucevic, who are coming up on the end of their rookie contracts. They’re going to want a lot of money in order to sign an extension early, but Magic ownership is going to be less inclined to open up their checkbook if they don’t see the playoffs in sight for 2015-2016. Their division is loaded this season, so anything more than a last place finish is going to be a very encouraging sign about the future. Even if they do end up in the cellar again, though, as long as there’s significant improvement, that’s all that matters.
5th Place – Southeast Division
– Yannis Koutroupis
Top Of The List
Top Offensive Player: With the departure of Arron Afflalo over the summer, the competition to lead the Magic in offense will be wide open. Last season, Afflalo paced the Magic with 18.2 points per game and was often the team’s best player on a nightly basis. The Magic’s point of emphasis during June’s draft seemed to be adding defensive-minded players in Aaron Gordon and Elfrid Payton, players not known to light it up on the scoreboard so the team will likely turn to someone already on the roster to pace its scoring each night. The Magic’s top offensive player could very well be Tobias Harris, who will be entering his fourth season in the league come October. Harris was acquired in the J.J. Redick deal from the Milwaukee Bucks at the trade deadline two seasons ago and became a go-to scorer for the Magic for the 27 games after the deadline averaging 17.3 points in those contests. The trade created an opportunity for Harris to really play, as it more than tripled his minutes per game from 11.6 a night with the Bucks to 36.1 a night with the Magic. His scoring increased from 4.9 to 17.3 points a night during that season. While Harris came out on fire during those 27 games two seasons ago, he fell back down to earth a little bit last season, averaging 14.6 points a game while shooting just 26 percent from three-point range. Harris suffered an ankle injury in the preseason last year and was said to have never fully recovered. Despite the dip in offense last season, Harris was second in scoring behind Afflalo and still managed to turn in some great performances. One of Harris’ best performances of the season came against the L.A. Lakers on Jan. 24, when he scored 28 points on nine-of-15 shooting while adding 20 rebounds. Harris is said to be completely healthy now and should be poised to lead the team in scoring.
Top Defensive Player: The Magic’s defense last season was good for a middle-of-the-pack ranking. The team gave up 102 points per game to opponents, which was good for 17th-best in the league. The team’s best individual defender is Maurice Harkless. The 21-year-old has the size and athleticism to become a perennial defender and, because of that, is often tasked with guarding the league’s top wings in which Harkless holds his own on most nights. In addition to Harkless, the team has brought in defensive players in Gordon and Payton through this year’s draft and Oladipo through last year’s draft. The Magic drafted those three players in hopes to bring the team to the top of the league in defense and they could very well be there in a couple of seasons. At 6’4, Payton has great length to guard opposing point guards and his quick hands will enable him to knock a lot of balls loose. Gordon’s athleticism is outstanding and will allow him to stay very active on the defensive side of the ball. Oladipo had a very solid first season on the defensive side and finished tied for 15th in the league with 1.61 steals per game.
Top Playmaker: This position will also be up for grabs this season with Jameer Nelson and Afflalo no longer in the picture. The Magic will turn to rookie point guard Payton to lead the offense and be the team’s playmaker. Payton has earned early comparisons to Rajon Rondo after his showing in the Orlando Summer League and overall skillset. Like Rondo, Payton isn’t a great shooter but showed the ability to find his teammates on the court. In five games in the Summer League, Payton averaged 9.2 points, seven assists and 5.2 rebounds per game, including two near triple-doubles. Last season, the Magic experimented with Oladipo at point guard, but the outcome was met with mixed results. After drafting Payton, Oladipo will go back to his natural two-guard position and thus become a better scoring option for the Magic. Payton’s ability to spread the ball around will enable head coach Jacque Vaughn to get guys like Harris, Harkless and newcomer Channing Frye looks from three-point range. The only question to Payton becoming the team’s top playmaker is how quickly Vaughn inserts him into the starting lineup.
Top Clutch Player: The Magic bringing Payton in to become the point guard will allow Oladipo to play more off of the ball and provide the team with a go-to player during crunch time. Oladipo’s quickness proved successful last season in allowing the 6’4 guard to drive through the lane for the easy layup or the kick out to the open shooter. Oladipo looked a bit erratic at times, but learned how to find more control as the season went on. After playing through the ups and downs of changing positions last season, Oladipo will surely know what it takes to play both guard positions and that will only help him moving forward to eliminate some of the costly mistakes he made. One benefit of no longer having Afflalo on the team is that the majority of the touches Afflalo got will likely now go to Oladipo.
Top Unheralded Player: Perhaps the guy that doesn’t get as much as love as he should is Kyle O’Quinn. The 6’10 big man found his way into the starting lineup in the second half of last season and never looked back. For O’Quinn, it really was a season of two-halves as he averaged just 4.3 points, 4.1 rebounds and nearly one block per game prior to the All-Star break. After the All-Star break, he averaged 9.7 points, 6.8 rebounds and nearly two blocks per game as a starter in 19 games. While starting, O’Quinn gave the Magic a legitimate shot blocker next to center Nikola Vucevic, which Vucevic doesn’t do nearly as well. Next season will be a pivotal season for O’Quinn as he’ll likely be back to coming off of the bench with the arrival of Frye and he’ll need to find that same aggressiveness he showed while starting to lead the second team off of the bench.
Best New Addition: The Magic had quite a busy summer between the draft and free agency. The Magic surprised many when they opted to bring in Channing Frye at $32 million over four years. They also shocked many by handing Ben Gordon a two-year, $9 million deal. In addition to Frye and Gordon, the Magic also brought in veterans Luke Ridnour and Willie Green. Frye will prove to be the best new addition out of all of those players and it may not even be close. Frye will be able to provide a team in desperate need of three-point shooting as the Magic were ranked 19th in the league last season at 35 percent. His ability to open up the floor will pay huge dividends for players like Oladipo, Payton and Harkless as that spacing will open up driving lanes. On a team that will be looking for a leading scorer, Frye is a player that could give his cousin Harris competition. A career 39 percent shooter from three-point range, Frye will surely be able to put up some points for the Magic.
– Cody Taylor
Who We Like
1. Nikola Vucevic: Standing at 7’0 tall, Vucevic is one of the most underrated centers in the league. Vucevic has the chance to drop a double-double on any given night, as he averaged 14.2 points and 11 rebounds per game last season. He has shown the ability to be an excellent rebounder, grabbing at least 10 rebounds in 40 out of a possible 57 games last season, 15 rebounds in nine games and twice grabbing at least 20 boards. Though he isn’t a great defender, he also has the ability to space the floor a little bit as he can shoot the mid-range shot well. When talking about the Magic’s young core of players, Vucevic is often viewed as one of the most important on the team.
2. Aaron Gordon: The Magic’s decision to pass on Dante Exum with the fourth pick in June’s draft surprised many but when they decided to use that pick on Gordon, it was even more surprising. Gordon’s lack of shooting turned a lot of teams off, but the 6’9 Arizona product has something that can’t be taught: athleticism. Gordon has the ability to jump out of the gym and it’s that athleticism that he’ll use to defend opposing forwards. His offensive game is a work in progress, but he can use that athleticism on pick-and-roll plays and cutting to the basket to help kick start his offensive game. The Magic drafted him because he is young, works hard and is a guy that they’ll be able to build up in the future.
3. Maurice Harkless: The young Harkless has already been mentioned as the team’s best defender, but he is no slouch on offense either. Although he regressed during his sophomore year with the Magic, there is no reason to believe he’ll continue that trend. Regardless of if he starts or not, Harkless should still see 20-25 minutes a game, which is plenty of time to do work. Harkless worked tirelessly last summer to improve his three-point shot and it showed. He raised his three-point percentage from 27 percent during his rookie year to 38 percent last season. Harkless has been hard at work again this summer improving his game and it appears to be working as he’s said to have more control in his game and more awareness. There is still much to like in Harkless’ game and heading into his third season in the league, the time is now for him to prove what type of player he can be.
4. Victor Oladipo: Last season, many thought Oladipo should have been the Rookie of the Year given his second-half performance. But even after missing out on the award, Oladipo still proved to be valuable for the Magic. He went through some growing pains at point guard, but that’s a given for a rookie transitioning to a different position. It’s those growing pains that will enable him to become a better player in his second year as he switches back to playing more of a shooting guard role. There will be times when the guard will be counted on to become the team’s go-to guy and there’s plenty of evidence to support that he’ll be ready for the call.
5. Tobias Harris: The big thing to like with Harris is his ability to really help the Magic’s offense. There may appear to be some competition for the starting small forward spot, but Harris should be the one getting the start over Harkless. At this point, Harris has proven to be more productive on the offensive side of the ball and that will certainly be an area in which the Magic will need help with. Harris was seen training with Carmelo Anthony over the summer and that should only help Harris improve his game.
– Cody Taylor
The Magic have a lot of young talent on the team and the sky is the limit for them. The team really hammered home the idea of defense by adding Gordon and Payton through the draft. The team should improve on last season’s mid-ranking defense and look to get into the top-10.
The Magic’s young core of Harris, Harkless, Vucevic, O’Quinn and Oladipo are growing in the league together and have developed great chemistry on and off of the court. The Magic want to build a team full of high-character guys and they seem to have that. This aspect of the team may be underrated and when the time comes for them to start winning, the chemistry portion of the equation will already be solved.
– Cody Taylor
The question everyone seems to have is where will the offense come from? While Payton and Gordon are praised on the defensive side of the ball, they are far from praised on the offensive side. Replacing Afflalo’s 18.2 points per game will prove to be a difficult task, so the team will lean heavily on Harris, Vucevic, Frye and Oladipo to make up Afflalo’s production.
As mentioned above, the team finished just inside the top 20 in the league in three-point shooting, but will the addition of Frye prove enough to be the solution? The Magic also added Gordon, a career 40-percent three-point shooter, but he hasn’t received significant playing time in over a year and has reportedly clashed with just about every coach he has had.
– Cody Taylor
The Salary Cap
The Magic have 15 players under contract, 14 guaranteed. Young big Dewayne Dedmon’s $816k deal isn’t locked in, representing the only possible roster spot should Orlando want to add a player through free agency. Without Dedmon, the team can get up to $8.3 million in cap space. The Magic have not been shy about buying out unwanted players. Waived players Glen Davis, Al Harrington, Jameer Nelson and Anthony Randolph will earn a combined $14.2 million from the franchise this year. Orlando may still look to use their cap room to facilitate a trade, perhaps adding another squad’s castoff in return for draft considerations. If the Magic eventually climbs to the cap, the organization will receive the $2.7 million Room Exception.
– Eric Pincus
It probably seems a lifetime ago for Magic fans, but the blockbuster trade that sent Dwight Howard to the Los Angeles Lakers was a mere two years ago. The Magic have assembled a group of solid young players since that point, but one that for now appears devoid of a great scorer or a defensive stopper among the bigs. A pattern has emerged among the last three Magic draftees – Oladipo, Gordon and Payton – all of whom are athletic players with great defensive potential who project as poor to very poor outside shooters. While the plan appears to center around building an athletic perimeter defense, it bears repeating that such young players are rarely effective defensively despite their physical gifts.
As for this year’s outlook, the Magic’s point differential suggests that they played more like a 26-win team than the 23-59 squad they were last year. Almost everyone left over from last year projects to be better this year, but they also lost their best player in Arron Afflalo. Nonetheless, the Magic were not as bad on defense as might have been expected last year, ranking 17th in points per possession. Unfortunately, they also were 29th offensively, which seems unlikely to improve much with the loss of Afflalo and the addition of two newcomers in Payton and Gordon who cannot shoot at all, even though Channing Frye is around to open up the floor with his pick and pops.
Payton and Gordon get it right away on defense. Aaron Gordon proves worthy of starting at the four, and the Magic’s defense rockets into the top-10 with an aggressive, switching strategy. Oladipo improves from the perimeter in his second season, and Frye, Ben Gordon and Evan Fournier provide enough shooting to open things up a little bit. The Magic avoid the bottom five offensively, and crack 30 wins.
The Magic play Gordon exclusively on the perimeter, and starting smalls Payton, Oladipo and Aaron Gordon cannot shoot well enough to prop up the offense even with Frye around. The young trio’s lack of experience manifests defensively, and that combined with the lack of interior defense keeps the Magic out of the top half of the league on that end.
The Burning Question
With the summer of additions, how much closer are the Magic to the playoffs?
With the Eastern Conference becoming increasingly better, there are a lot of teams on the rise vying to compete with the Cleveland Cavaliers and Chicago Bulls, but the Magic may not be quite there yet. It seems like the pieces are there for the team, but those pieces will take some time to develop. It might be another season before the Magic can do what the Charlotte Bobcats (now Hornets) did last season and finally make the playoffs after years of remaining on the outside looking in. The Magic won 23 games last season, good for third-worst in the conference so an ideal season for them would be to win somewhere in the 30-game range, but a seven-game improvement may even be a stretch with so many questions surrounding the offense.
– Cody Taylor
NBA PM: Frank Kaminsky’s Massive Opportunity
The potential frontcourt pairing of Frank Kaminsky and Dwight Howard should make for an exciting season in Charlotte.
With both highs and lows to account for, it’s been an incredibly eventful offseason for the Charlotte Hornets. From trading for Dwight Howard and drafting Malik Monk to the news that defensive stalwart Nicolas Batum would be out for the foreseeable future, the Hornets will start the 2017-18 season off looking considerably different. Still, it’s difficult to see Charlotte stepping into the conference’s upper echelon alongside the Boston Celtics and Cleveland Cavaliers, among others, without some major internal growth.
Down those lines, there may be no better candidate for a breakout season than Frank Kaminsky, the team’s modernly-molded stretch big man. Heading into his third NBA season, Kaminsky struggles at times but has generally affirmed why the Hornets passed on the Celtics’ huge offer and selected the former collegiate stud with the No. 9 overall pick back in 2015. Combined with the more defensive-steady force of Cody Zeller, the Hornets quickly found themselves with a solid, if not spectacular 1-2 punch at the center position.
Unsurprisingly, Kaminsky’s best nights statistically last season came when he hit multiple three-pointers. There were games like his 5-for-9 barrage from deep en route to 23-point, 13-rebound effort against the Sacramento Kings in late February, but his inconsistencies often got in the way just as much. In 2016-17 alone, Kaminsky tallied 41 games in which he converted on one or less of his three-point attempts — and the Hornets’ record? 13-28. Perhaps a tad coincidental for a franchise that finished at 36-46, but the Hornets ranked 11th in three-pointers with an even 10 per contest, so when Marvin Williams (1.6) Marco Belinelli (1.4), Kaminsky (1.5) and Batum (1.8) weren’t hitting, it was often lights out for an ultimately disappointing Charlotte side.
With his 33.1 percent career rate from deep, there’s certainly room to improve for Kaminsky, but his 116 made three-pointers still put him in a special group last season. Of all players at 7-foot or taller, only Brook Lopez made more three-pointers (134) than Kaminsky did — even ranking four ahead of Kristaps Porzingis, one of the league’s most talented unicorns. Once that category is expanded to include those at 6-foot-10 or taller, the list gets far more crowded ahead of Kaminsky, but it’s noteworthy nonetheless.
On that lengthier list of three-point shooting big men is Ryan Anderson, one of the strongest like-for-like comparisons that Kaminsky has today. Drafted in 2008, Anderson has been an elite three-point shooter for quite some time and his 204 makes last season ranked him ninth in the entire NBA. In fact, Anderson’s 2012-13 tally of 213 ranked only behind Stephen Curry; the year before that, his 166 total topped the rest of the field for a first-place finish. Coming out the University of California, Anderson was solid late first-round pickup by the New Jersey Nets and he knocked down one of his 2.9 attempts per game as a rookie.
Then, Anderson was traded to the Orlando Magic in the summer of 2009 and found out that true basketballing nirvana is playing on the same team as prime Dwight Howard. For three seasons, they were a near-perfect fit for each other as Howard averaged 13.9 rebounds and Anderson hit two three-pointers per game over that stretch. Howard deftly made up for Anderson’s defensive shortcomings while the latter stretched the floor effortlessly on the other end.
Although Howard is now considerably older, he’s never recorded a season with an average of 10 rebounds or less over his 13-year career. Howard’s impressive rebounding rate of 20.8 percent — the third-highest mark in NBA history behind Dennis Rodman (23.44) and Reggie Evans (21.87) — has made it easy for his partners to stay at the perimeter or bust out in transition. Other power forwards that have flourished next to Howard also include Rashard Lewis (2.8 three-pointers per game from 2007-09) and Chandler Parsons (1.8 in 2013-14), so there’s some precedent here as well.
Simply put, Howard still demands attention in the post, and Kaminsky is the Hornets’ best possible fit next to him. As Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and Williams will likely slide up a position at times to help navigate Batum’s injury, throwing Kaminsky into the fire seems almost too logical.
An improved sophomore season for Kaminsky saw rises in every major statistical category outside of his percentages due to an increase in volume. However, that 32.8 percent mark from three-point range is considerably lower than the league average and it’ll need to improve for somebody that spends much of the offensive possession ready to fire away. Regardless, Kaminsky’s 11.7 points, 4.5 rebounds and 2.2 assists per game in 2016-17 are a bright sign moving forward, but with Howard, he’s about to be gifted his best opportunity yet.
Whether he’s operating in transition, out of pick-and-pops or catch-and-shoots, Kaminsky has the tools to join the elite stretch forwards in the near future and stay there permanently. Kaminsky’s growing chemistry with All-Star point guard Kemba Walker has made the pair difficult to defend out on the perimeter. From the aforementioned pick-and-pops to a slightly more complicated dribble hand-off, trying to guard the two three-point shooting threats is enough to make your head spin. When he’s not firing from behind the arc, Kaminsky has also exhibited a soft touch and an ability to score among the trees as well.
As he continues to grow and expand his skill set, Kaminsky just needs to find some much-needed consistency as a shooter. If Kaminsky can raise his three-point percentage up closer to the league average this season, he’ll be an invaluable asset for the Hornets as they push for a playoff berth. Over his two full NBA seasons thus far, the Hornets have never had somebody like Howard to pair with Kaminsky and past results for those shooters playing with the future Hall of Famer are promising. Of course, head coach Steve Clifford is a defensive-minded leader — Charlotte’s defensive rating ranked 14th in 2016-17 at 106.1 — so Kaminsky will need to improve there to take full advantage of the available minutes. Fortunately, Howard’s savvy rim protection should make it a palatable experience on both sides of the ball.
When the Hornets rebuffed the Celtics’ massive draft day offer in order to select Kaminsky two years ago, it would’ve been impossible to predict Howard falling right into their lap as well. Between his expanding game and the new frontcourt combination, there’s potential here for Kaminsky to take the next big step in 2017-18.
If and when they do indeed pair him with Howard, the Hornets will be both maximizing his talents as a perimeter threat and minimizing his weaknesses as a defender. While Clifford leaned on Zeller in the past, Howard’s decorated history surrounded by court-stretching shooters should make the decision even easier. Kaminsky’s got all the workings of a modern offensive big man, the faith of the front office and the perfect paint-clogging partner — now it’s up to him to put it all together and become one of Charlotte’s most indispensable players.
Where Do the Celtics Go From Here?
The Boston Celtics face an uphill climb after the loss of Gordon Hayward, writes Shane Rhodes.
The Boston Celtics suffered a crushing blow Tuesday night after losing marquee free agent acquisition Gordon Hayward to a gruesome leg injury in the early goings of the season’s opening contest. Unfortunately for Boston, the NBA will continue to march on and Brad Stevens and his squad will have to adapt, adjust and learn on the fly. With 81 games still to play, all might not be lost for the Celtics, but where can the team go from here?
A lineup shuffle is almost certainly in the cards. Marcus Smart, projected to be Stevens’ first man off the bench, will likely slot into the starting lineup as the shooting guard next to Kyrie Irving, sliding Jaylen Brown to the small forward position. From there, a larger rotation and a minutes bump for other bench guys like Terry Rozier, Shane Larkin, Semi Ojeleye, etc., would make the most sense as Stevens attempts to ensure his key guys — Irving, Brown and Al Horford — have fresh legs down the stretch. Nineteen-year-old Jayson Tatum, who impressed in his debut with a double-double of 14 points and 10 rebounds, should also get an extended look, even after presumed starter Marcus Morris is back and healthy enough to play. Irving and Horford’s veteran presence in the locker room cannot be understated as well.
Brown, who should move into Hayward’s spot in the lineup, had already been pegged for a major role on the team this season. Now, the second-year wing will bear an even heavier burden and will seemingly have to produce all over the floor for the Celtics. Without Hayward, Brown now joins a defensive group of Smart, Horford and Morris that will have their work cut out. Brown will also be expected to produce more on the offensive end as well and do so efficiently. While he poured in 25 points last night, Brown did so on an inefficient 11 of 23 shooting while going just 2-of-9 from three-point range. Still rough around the edges as expected, Brown will need to quickly smooth out his game if Boston wants to remain competitive during the season.
Danny Ainge will certainly survey the remaining free agent and trade market as well. If a low-cost, low-risk opportunity were to present itself, don’t expect the thrifty general manager to just sit back. While low-cost and low-risk doesn’t fit Ainge’s usual MO, he knows better than to make a knee-jerk reaction to a freak injury like the one Hayward sustained; he isn’t going to break the bank and mortgage the future he painstakingly built over the past several seasons to bring Anthony Davis to Boston, but a grab at JaMychal Green or a similar player certainly isn’t out of the question.
The real key to the team’s success going forward will be the play of Irving. Formerly the 1A to Hayward’s 1B, Irving will now be the sole No. 1 option and will be relied on by Stevens and the rest of the team as such, which is what Irving has really wanted all along. The whole reason he wanted out of Cleveland, out of LeBron James’ massive shadow, was to show that he could be “the guy” and now Irving has a prime opportunity to prove that he can be. The Celtics from here on will go as he goes; if Irving falters, the team will as well. While the initial showings were positive — Irving posted a double-double of his own with 22 points and 10 assists — there is a lot of basketball left to be played.
All is not lost for Boston and the 2017 season can certainly be salvaged. While Hayward’s injury is devastating and certainly sucked the enjoyment out of what many expected to be a very exciting season, the Celtics are more than capable of weathering this storm and coming out stronger on the other side with Ainge and Stevens at the helm and Irving, Brown and others leading the team on the floor.
Changing Circumstance: On Utah’s Foundational Frontcourt
Rudy Gobert and Derrick Favors are ready for a big season as a duo, writes Ben Dowsett.
In many ways, the partnership that now forms the starting frontcourt in Utah is characterized by circumstance. The Jazz basically stumbled upon the duo of Derrick Favors and Rudy Gobert during a mostly lost 2014-15 season, allowing it to blossom after trading Enes Kanter at the deadline. Many in the organization loved Gobert, but few expected to force his way into such a large role as early as he did.
Even with the league beginning to move firmly in the direction of smaller, spaced-out lineups, the Jazz quickly realized they had something here. Favors and Gobert picked up chemistry in a hurry – the ability to “communicate telepathically,” as Favors jokingly puts it. They quickly formed a formidable defensive duo, nicknamed “The Wasatch Front” by certain clever folks in Jazzland. (Jazz fans: Rudy is fine with this nickname, but is open to better suggestions. Get those Twitter fingers typing.)
After the Kanter trade really opened things up for the pair to start games following the All-Star break, the Jazz posted a frighteningly low 92.5 per-100-possession defensive figure – over 10 full points better than their third-ranked defense in 2016-17, and nearly nine better than the league-best Spurs posted last year.
Over the next couple years, circumstance would strike in other ways. Both guys would miss significant time with injuries in 2015-16, including overlapping periods that made it tough to find rhythm. Gobert admitted he was never really himself after an MCL sprain he likely rushed back from just a bit. Even many casual fans could pick up on how physically limited Favors was last year, even when he was ostensibly healthy.
Another bit of circumstance arose last season: With Joe Johnson in town, the Jazz found their own versions of the league’s small trend. Lineups featuring Gobert at center and Johnson playing the power forward spot were easily Utah’s best for the season, quickly becoming coach Quin Snyder’s go-to look in crunch time. Even when Favors was in the lineup, he’d regularly lose big minutes.
Circumstance was once again present over the summer, with star Gordon Hayward and point guard George Hill departing. Where Favors may have once looked like a forgotten man, he’s back at full health for the first time in over a year and is right back in the picture as a foundational piece. Where Gobert may have been part of a two-headed monster hoping to challenge for contender status in the West, he’s now the singular face of a franchise that fully expects to avoid another rebuild.
Individually, it’s a big season ahead. As a duo, it might be even bigger – not only for the pair, but for the Jazz and even for the league as a whole.
Most of the concerns you hear regarding the Favors-Gobert duo come on the offensive side of the ball. There were some struggles in that first year together, where they posted an anemic on-court figure (they were still a net plus, but only because they also strangled opponents in those minutes). That’s also about how long it took for that almost supernatural connection to kick in, as Favors tells it – it was in full swing by the 2015-16 season.
“That whole type of thing normally comes with a point guard, because they’ve got the ball all the time and they see stuff,” Favors told Basketball Insiders. “We just see each other, just communicate telepathically.”
Favors describes the connection as one of the most unique of his career, and it was visible on both sides of the ball. The two developed an uncanny knack for covering each other at the rim. Offensively, they quickly picked up a big-to-big passing game that helped with some of their spacing concerns.
“I think we both learned that we need to space for each other, we need to be precise with our spacing,” Gobert told Basketball Insiders. “I got better at passing, I got better at finishing, he got better at passing too. I know that when I’m rolling, if his guy comes, he’s going to be open – so I dump it off to him or the corner.”
“These things don’t come just like that, but once we figure it out, it’s very hard to guard,” Gobert continued. “People see that as a weakness – I see it as a strength. When teams play small, there’s going to be small guy on either one of us.”
A smaller guy on Favors means a better passing lane for Gobert, or an opportunity to seal for deep post position. A smaller guy on Gobert – something teams used to do often but have moved away from more and more as he’s developed his rolling skills – invites high lobs and dunks, or compromising help from elsewhere in the defense.
Both guys have gotten much better with their angles, as well. That smaller defender is often trying to mitigate his size advantage by fronting or some other exploitable technique, and both Favors and Gobert have learned how to attack these strategies.
Gobert has taken huge strides in his ability to finish from both sides of the hoop, and through contact. He shot one of the highest percentages in the league among centers near the rim last year, at over 68 percent, and was up at a ludicrous 81.5 percent during the preseason.
Put it together, and it’s possible the duo’s offensive concerns have been a tad bit overstated in the past. The per-possession net rating the Jazz posted while Favors and Gobert played together in 2015-16 would have ranked seventh in the league for the full season, and it actually rose last year (the corresponding rank dropped, however, as the league improved overall). The Jazz’s slightly above average offense saw virtually no drop-off last year from when the duo played together to when they didn’t, and that’s before considering Favors’ health woes.
The savvy reader will note that their surroundings are an important part of this, and they’d be right. A big chunk of their minutes together last year came with Hill running the point and spacing the floor, and over 90 percent of them came with Hayward on the court – they did okay in a tiny sample last year, but historically have struggled to score at even league average rates without Utah’s former All-Star sharing the court.
Ricky Rubio’s acquisition will likely make them even more lethal defensively, but it also presents some additional theoretical concerns. Snyder appears likely to start each of Rubio, Favors and Gobert, meaning Utah will open the game with three non-threats from deep.
Rubio’s history, though, offers a glimpse of how they might get around these issues. With the exception of last season, when Karl-Anthony Towns’ development as a shooter and playmaker opened things up a bit more, Rubio never exactly played in spacing-charged lineups in Minnesota in the past. Look at the three-point percentages of his most common jump-shooting floor-mates from the 2015-16 season:
Andrew Wiggins (played during 95 percent of Rubio’s minutes): 30.0 percent
Karl-Anthony Towns (89 percent of Rubio’s minutes): 34.1 percent
Gorgui Dieng (54 percent of Rubio’s minutes): 30.0 percent
Zach LaVine (45 percent of Rubio’s minutes): 38.9 percent
Tayshaun Prince (39 percent of Rubio’s minutes): 17.4 percent
Shabazz Muhammad (18 percent of Rubio’s minutes): 28.9 percent
Only Towns and LaVine were passable three-point shooters among that group, and LaVine played well under half of Rubio’s minutes. Virtually every lineup Rubio played in contained at least two other total non-threats (often three), and not a single one ever contained a marksman like Jazzman Joe Ingles, who nearly led the league in three-point percentage last year. Things were like this for the vast majority of Rubio’s time in Minnesota.
And yet, his teams consistently have succeeded offensively.
Since he became the full-time starter, no Wolves offense helmed by Rubio finished lower than 11th in the league during a year he was healthy – in his only non-healthy year, 2014-15, they were 26th. His teams consistently got way worse offensively when he left the floor, and consistently strong offensive Real Plus-Minus ratings (17th among point guards in 2016-17, 12th in 15-16 and 14-15, 22nd in 13-14) indicate that this was more than just a case of bad backups.
“He’s been like that his whole career, and I think he’s been pretty good [despite] it,” Gobert said of his new teammate. “There’s a lot of ways to score. He’s very quick. Even if you’re backing up, he can still attack you and find the open man. I’m not really worried about spacing.”
Rubio also comes with a few strong points that should help improve areas the Jazz were lacking on in recent years, namely their transition game. Play type figures from Synergy Sports on NBA.com seem to indicate that the Jazz were elite on the break last year – they had the highest per-possession efficiency – but this is an example of where those numbers can lead you astray. The Jazz had one of the lowest frequencies of such plays in the league; their efficiency was only so high because they only attempted sure-thing shots while avoiding other transition chances like the plague.
That’s not an optimal approach offensively. Even some of those iffier transition chances still hold an expected point value that’s far higher than anything you’ll find in the halfcourt, and backing out of them for fear of an imperfect shot leaves easy points on the table.
Snyder recognizes it, and he’s looking to transition (pun maybe intended) the Jazz away from their state as one of the league’s slowest teams on the break. It starts with Rubio, long known for his ability to jitterbug up the court after defensive possessions and wreak havoc. Snyder is placing more emphasis on the ball in Rubio’s hands after misses – he wants his wings sprinting up the floor to space out to the corners whenever possible. Guys like Favors and Gobert play a big role as well.
“It’s important, especially the big that doesn’t get the rebound,” Gobert told Basketball Insiders. “Coach [Snyder] put an emphasis on [that] this year – the big who didn’t get the rebound has to run, has to sprint and try to beat his guy up the floor.”
Favors is ready for more of that now that he’s back at full health. Gobert has always loved beating guys down the floor; look how far behind DeAndre Jordan he is when he’s pushed out of the frame, and how much faster he is getting up the court for an easy bucket.
Snyder has talked about upping the tempo in preseason before, notably in his first year in Utah, only to see it fall flat when the games count. It feels different this time, though: The Jazz finished eighth in per-possession fast break points for the preseason, per NBA.com, way up from a 29th-place finish last season. Rubio is easily the cleanest fit they’ve had at the point in this area, and it feels like we should expect a few extra freebies every night in transition to goose the offense.
The other area that should see a big spike, especially when the two behemoths play together, is offensive rebounding. The Jazz were a dominant team here in 2015-16, generating the third-most per-possession second chance points in the league largely on the back of the Favors-Gobert duo, which rebounded nearly 30 percent of the team’s own misses and put up over 10 second-chance points for every 36 minutes on the court.
Last year, though, things fell way off. Some of that was drop-off and health concerns from the tandem itself, and some was more stylistic.
“We’ve emphasized transition defense, and sometimes there’s an opportunity cost at the offensive glass,” Snyder said. “Sometimes when you’re spaced a certain way, it’s harder to get to the glass.
“A couple years ago our spacing was a little different – we just had guys around the rim all the time. We didn’t design our team that way or our offense that way in order to offensive rebound, we designed it that way because we had players that were effective around the rim and didn’t necessarily have three-point range. So when you look at Joe Johnson, offensive rebounding is not going to be as much of a premium for him. But Ekpe [Udoh], Derrick and Rudy, certainly.”
With Favors back healthy and starting, plus the addition of Udoh as mostly a big lineup four-man (at least in preseason), expect the Jazz to revert back to their bullying ways on the offensive glass. They lost nearly three second-chance points per night between the 15-16 season and the 16-17 one – if they can get those back or even add to them slightly, it’s another piece that can help fill in the gaps offensively. Utah was back to fourth in second-chance points for the preseason, another positive sign.
“If you’re a three and you’re playing at the four, and you’re guarding Derrick or myself, it’s not going to be a fun night for you,” Gobert told Basketball Insiders.
And if Favors and Gobert can maintain or even improve offensively together, watch out.
They’re fearsome defensively, and will only be more so if Favors’ improved mobility remains. Utah’s entire defensive scheme is built around them.
“My job really, not to give away a scouting report, but is to take guys off the three-point line and really just send them in there,” Jazz guard Rodney Hood said. “They take pride in defending the basket, they take pride in defense.”
The Jazz are looking to take a few more risks defensively this year to up their steals, which Snyder hopes will feed into increased transition opportunities. Rubio’s presence as one of the league’s premier ballhawks helps, but having those rocks behind them makes this emphasis easier to follow.
“It gives you a lot more confidence – not even to gamble, I guess, but just to be more aggressive,” swingman Joe Ingles said. “I know that if I do get beat being aggressive, that they’re going to be there and they’re going to come over and help.”
How Snyder chooses to use his big duo is yet to be seen. If preseason is any indicator, their usage will resemble much of last season, particularly toward the end: Favors and Gobert both start the game, but outside those minutes and the ones to open the third quarter, they rarely play together once Favors exits. At this point, Favors is mostly relegated to backup center during the minutes Gobert sits while Gobert plays either in small lineups or alongside Udoh.
Can they do enough to force Snyder’s hand into more minutes? It’s tough to say. Gobert is one of the few bigs in the league who can keep an interior defense afloat completely by himself – there was virtually no drop-off to Utah’s field goal percentage allowed at the rim when Gobert played around a small lineup compared with when he played next to Favors last year.
A good chunk of that could have been Favors’ health, and the Jazz will hope it’s a big chunk; if Favors’ presence doesn’t actually swing the interior defense all that much compared to when the Jazz play small, it’ll be hard to really maximize his value. Even for all the offensive improvements they’ve made as a pair, the Favors-Gobert combination still can’t touch the kind of efficiency the Jazz put up with Johnson playing power forward next to Gobert. Why play Favors-Gobert at all if there isn’t a value to the trade-off?
A healthy Favors could make that last question sound silly, and he’s out to do that to plenty of folks. Derrick doesn’t have the same kind of outward bravado Gobert boasts, but he’s quietly fierce. He heard all the noise about his declining game over the last 18 months.
He’s also prideful, and it’s tough to sit on the bench during crunch time when you’re a player of his stature. For Favors, this was an intersection of personal frustration and collective acceptance.
“Of course I want to be out there, but at the same time you’ve got to do what’s best for the team,” Favors told Basketball Insiders. He also knew who was replacing him: “If it was anybody else you’d be mad – but it’s Joe Johnson, so it’s like, ‘Hey, Joe Johnson can close games, man.’”
It was a sacrifice for Favors, and not the first one he’s made to help foster optimal usage for a teammate. As a young player, he was one of the league’s up-and-coming talents as a roll man in pick-and-roll; he’s still great there, but Gobert’s emergence as one of the game’s most dangerous lob threats here has changed the way Favors is used.
He expanded his game, working to find ways to complement Gobert when the played together. His timing has grown leaps and bounds as the “dunker” in pick-and-roll action, waiting for a dump-off from Gobert. He’s developed a great chemistry with Gobert on the “short roll” for when teams blitz ball-handlers.
All this has essentially forced him to become more versatile.
“I know when I came into the league, my calling card was rolling to the rim,” Favors said to Basketball Insiders. “[Now] I can roll to the rim, I can pop, I can play in the half roll, I can space out. I think that’s something I wanted to show everybody I can do.”
With a contract year set to begin Wednesday night, it’s a vital time for Favors. Comments from agent Wallace Prather last spring indicated that a Hayward departure was likely the only realistic avenue to Favors remaining in Salt Lake City long term; with Hayward indeed gone, Favors now has to show Jazz brass he’s worth that investment.
Gobert isn’t going anywhere, and that means Favors’ stock could rise and fall depending on how the two fare together. If the combo can’t succeed, or if small lineups end up far more effective, it would be virtually impossible to justify Utah investing the amount Favors is worth into his future.
More than that, the Favors-Gobert combo could represent a last stand of sorts for these kinds of big lineups across the league. An optimized Favors, or a similar type, is virtually a must if you’re going to try big ball against the Golden States and Houstons of the world: A guy big enough to punish wings guarding him on one end, but stick with those guys laterally on the other.
Only the fully healthy version of Favors is capable of this in big minutes. Even then, it might be a struggle against the league’s best teams – every possession in these lineups is an uphill climb against the simple math that’s made small-ball so popular in the first place. Elite opponents will choke away space and demand that Favors and Gobert beat them while outside their comfort zone.
They’re out to prove they’re ready, though. A duo marked by unexpected circumstance ever since they first came together is now looking to write their own narrative, and they’ll start it off on Wednesday night.